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Driving impressions of the new BMW i3 electric vehicle

BMW has created its own space in the EV market in terms of price and content, but does this car actually drive and feel like a BMW? The answer is interesting.

Drive the new BMW i3 for less than a mile and you will understand why the car has a great chance to sell in whatever numbers BMW wants to make it in. Having driven and written about the BMW Active e, Tesla Model S, Honda Fit EV, and Nissan Leaf, I know and understand that EVs need to balance acceleration, cost, range and other factors. Unlike a gasoline powered car, EVs cannot have it all, even with massive financial support from you, the taxpayer. BMW has tipped the scales in an interesting way this author thinks will work.

Unlike the Honda Fit EV and Nissan Leaf, this new BMW i3 accelerates smartly from a stop, and keeps on accelerating if the driver wants it to. BMW is always conservative with performance numbers, but says the car will go from 0-60 in 7.2 seconds. It feels faster. In my opinion, BMW gave this car exactly the right amount of power. It has less dramatic acceleration than a Tesla Model S, but who cares? The Model S in its most commonly purchased form is more car than anyone really needs on public roads. The BMW i3 does not pretend to be more than a great passenger car. On the highway, where torque is the secondary factor to power, the i3 still has the pickup one needs to feel as if they are driving a premium automobile with guts. While on on-ramps it has much more pickup than you will need, and even better, it has as much as you will actually want.

I liked how the car steered. It is light in your hands (like a car with lots of power steering “boost”). The steering is laser sharp around town and on the highway. It is very direct. Let’s remember that this is a passenger car, not a sports car. If you accept that, as the vast majority of real-life drivers do, then this car handles well. I won’t comment on how it feels “at the limit.” People don’t drive passenger cars “at the limit.” I did not perform any emergency maneuvers but it sure felt like it would do fine, and a whole lot better than any truck, SUV, or large affordable car would.

The suspension is OK. I’d give it a B. It seems to handle bumps OK, but it was more harsh than I would expect a luxury car to be. Bumps that it was not able to absorb well rattled the structure more than I like. There is no B pillar in this car. The two side doors open opposite ways and the car is open like a clam shell when both are open. I swear I heard the door rattle over one set of bumps that were typical for this area (Northeast). Try it yourself and decide. One thing is for sure, it is not the mushy bland econobox feel of a Leaf, and it sure as heck is not sport-lux like a Tesla Model S. It is nicely in between.

Most EVs use the “one pedal” driving style. This means when you lift off the accelerator the car slows dramatically. I am not bothered by it. Some may be. You decide. The upside of this is that when you lift, you put energy into the battery. When I used the brakes they felt solid and I liked the pedal feel.

One thing that did bother me a little was the A pillar. Due to the car’s structure it is way out in front of you and seems very thick. It was in my line of sight at intersections and when I turned the car. I found myself trying to look around it. This cannot be helped given the i3’s odd boxy design. I loved the seating position in general, but like the BMW X1 I drove recently, I am too big a human for the seat. I am 6 feet and 195 pounds. If you are smaller this may not be a problem for you. To add some perspective, I tested the Mazda3 last week and it fit me great. It is rare I find myself too big for a car.

To me this car is not at all what I think of as a BMW. The one thing BMW has left now after moving away from perfect small sedans with silky-smooth, in-line 6-cylinder, normally aspirated engines, is that unique solidity. All that unites BMWs now in my mind is that special German “solid as a rock” feel. This BMW does not have that. The only thing I can come up with for you that makes this car “a BMW” is its price point. It has none of the same character, none of that special something that all BMWs present to you when you drive them. It is its own thing. Not a bad thing mind you.

This is a driving impressions review so I will not offer my thoughts or opinions about the i3 in other ways such as safety, looks, value, quality, expected reliability, green credentials, etc. However, I do have to comment on the complete lack of a spare tire. The car uses tires the likes of which you have not seen on a car before now. Very tall, very narrow (see photo), and they are not run-flats. Due to where I live, on the roads I travel, I will not buy a passenger car without a spare of some kind. These completely unique BMW i3 tires will not be in stock anyplace local, with the possible exception of a BMW dealership (maybe). You have been warned.

Before any taxpayer money is given back to you, a base i3 starts at about $41k. That gets you a car with no back-up camera and lots of stuff missing you might expect at that price point. A loaded i3 with range extender runs about $53K. Like Nissan, BMW has a lease program that seems inviting. The BMW sales representative I spoke to says that orders are being taken now, inventory is near zero, and cars are likely to start arriving in June. He did not know for certain, but he thought that BMW would at some future point expect dealerships to stock i3s on their floors. I would not expect that to be any time in 2014.

I drove this car at a public event hosted by BMW. There were throngs of EV and BMW fans in attendance, and some were simply dying to have an i3. Once it gets established in its supply chain, and if BMW wants to produce this vehicle to meet customer demand, I will be shocked if it cannot outsell both the Leaf and Tesla Model S. This is the only practically sized electric car in the US market that actually drives in a way I can call acceptable and enjoyable, other than the two or three times more expensive Tesla Model S.

Related Stories:
BMW i3 increases production to meet high demand, will double 2014 projections
The EPA Range of the BMW i3: A Prognosis

Main photo courtesy of BMW. Smaller photos by John Goreham


Peter Eliades (not verified)    May 2, 2014 - 8:14PM

I own a Model S. What the heck does this mean?: "The Model S in its most commonly purchased form is more car than anyone really needs on public roads." So is the BMW i3, but the bottom line is the BMW is a poor excuse for a Tesla competitor. In what respect does it really surpass the Tesla and, if not, why should we even consider its purchase. The whole article is a rationalization for a poor Tesla substitute!

John Goreham    May 3, 2014 - 10:19AM

In reply to by Peter Eliades (not verified)

Peter, thank you for telling us you felt this way after reading the story. I think that the Model S and i3 will not compete directly. The comment was meant to emphasize that the Model S is not really just a passenger car - but far more. As you know some Model S cars can go head to head with a Corvette Stingray on a drag strip. It is very large (5+2 passengers), extremely luxurious, and handles like an Audi S7. The i3 is nothing at all like that. Rather it has the straight line acceleration of a Honda Accord Sport (4 cylinder) is a 4+1 seater, and handles kind of like a RAV 4. I'm sorry you saw the article as being anything but positive with regard to the Model S. I meant to convey to readers some perspective on what is out there now and make the case that the i3 fill the space BETWEEN the Leaf and the Model S. It is priced at less than half of a comparably equipped Model S and nearly double a comparably equipped Leaf after the government antis up.

Car Fan (not verified)    May 3, 2014 - 6:04PM

In reply to by Peter Eliades (not verified)

How about actual start-to-finish sustainability? All current EVs are based off standard car manufacturing design, methods, and materials. They are only "green" once in actual use (assuming solar energy as the recharge source). The i3 is the only car that attempts to be green from start-to-finish through it's use of renewable, recyclable, and sustainable materials from sourced responsibly. It's also the first car to really emphasize efficiency over brute forth methods to increase range and performance (i.e. Tesla). The significance of the i3 isn't that it's an EV, it's that it represents a new approach to efficient vehicle design.

Tesla owners, fanatics, and fanboys often believe Tesla is the only one able to create a high range EV. That is simply not true. Any car manufacturer could have created a 200-300 mi range EV. Tesla brute forced it and shoved as many Panasonic batteries as they could into the car, disregarding price. The difference is the target demographic and thought behind mass EV adoption. Tesla took the chance and targeted those with disposable income that always want the latest and greatest regardless of price. This has worked out for them. All other manufacturers are taking the approach that affordable EVs are the key to mass market adoption, so they must hold back on batteries and design costs. This has also worked as you see lease rates dropping to sub $300/month ranges causing an increase in EV adoption as well. BMW has seem to stricken middle ground.

Just to play devil's advocate: Why would you consider or manufacturer green if they are using half the worlds supply of Lithium ion batteries? Or, if they open up the Gigafactory, predictions estimate they would require more than 100% of the world's supply. You do all realize, lithium is not an infinite source. How environmentally friendly could it be to consume keep packing as much rare earth metals as possible into a single vehicle? That doesn't seem any different than throwing a huge V12 and gas tank into a fast sports car to me. They key is to increase range and performance while reducing used resources. The i3 makes the first attempt at this idea. Smaller battery, about the same range as competitors (discount Tesla), faster, higher output motor, etc. Efficiency is just unmatched. The Model S is the least efficient BEV, actually.

John Goreham    May 4, 2014 - 11:35AM

In reply to by Car Fan (not verified)

I won't participate in the "My green is greener than your green" debate. Oh, why not....Just to play devil's advocate, How does BMW get the CFRP body structure it makes in the top left corner of the US to Germany, and then back to Washington as part of the finished car? Fossil fuel transport. Why pick on the Model S?

John Goreham    May 3, 2014 - 10:25AM

In reply to by Peter Eliades (not verified)

I hear that! However, as the Prius has proved, there are a quarter of a million buyers a year that will buy a bland, or even ugly car, if it satisfies their more important objectives. A subset of those people want it to have an obvious "Geek-chic" look so that they can be seen as having made a responsible decision. I had never seen the car in person before yesterday. After seeing it up close myself I get what the designers are trying to achieve. Exposed carbon fiber (real carbon fiber) is visible in good amounts on the running board areas. The interior is made from sustainable materials. The design makes the most of the interior space., etc. A lot of the people at the event LOVED the look and design, sort of like people love the MINI design. Not my personal taste, but I will be surprised if many folks don't like it. On the i3 forums folks post pics of black and white ones and say "Panda" and things like that with many "likes" by other fans.

Car Fan (not verified)    May 3, 2014 - 6:08PM

John, just an FYI. To my understanding, all the i3's at the "Drive the Future" events are pre-production European spec models. If you search around you'll find some similar comments about rattling or questionable material quality from European previewers when they drove pre-production vehicles. However, all of them retracted their statements once testing the actual production models.

John Goreham    May 4, 2014 - 11:25AM

In reply to by Car Fan (not verified)

Thank you for pointing out the value of reading the experienced writers here at Torque News. I won't have to print any kind of retraction because I said "I swear I heard the door rattle over one set of bumps that were typical for this area (Northeast). Try it yourself and decide." A less experienced writer might have left the comment just hanging there implying it was terminal. I suggest the readers decide when they try the car. Kidding aside, I will be at an International Motor Press Assoc. meeting May 16th and BMW may bring another i3. If they do I will report any major differences in the car.

Brian(J) (not verified)    May 5, 2014 - 6:41PM

I've got an i3 'Panda' on order myself.
I think your comments on the Tesla are right-on. What a magnificent car the Model S is, but will never work for me. I toss a parachute in the back of my car next to the tool bags and the SCUBA gear and then the dogs jump in and away we go. I've gotta have a hatchback with seats that fold down and I admire but avoid beautiful hand stitched leather seats- the amazing S3 does not fit my profile like the i3 and the $39K I will be out of pocket (calculating in the sales tax exemption and the IRS tax rebate) is right at the top of what I will pay. So for me perfect, for Peter it's a no-go.
Your comment
"How does BMW get the CFRP body structure it makes in the top left corner of the US to Germany, and then back to Washington as part of the finished car? Fossil fuel transport"
isn't quite right. Only carbon fiber processing occurs at the Moses Lake facility (they cook it) using almost free energy from the big dams there. The body is made in Germany. To make your point for you though, the calculations I've seen indicate that if your electricity comes from burning fossil fuels you are consuming more carbon than an equal size fossil fuel car once you figure in the embedded energy. If your power comes from a cleaner source you are consuming a lot less.

John Goreham    May 6, 2014 - 8:07AM

In reply to by Brian(J) (not verified)

Thanks Brian(J). Truly my heart isn't in arguing which car of the green cars is the truest form. I liked your gear list. Given all that Sea -Air-Land gear I would have thought maybe yours would be an Orca. :) Cheers,

Gary Musser (not verified)    May 17, 2014 - 12:09PM

Thanks to John for the great review. I am on my second Leaf, a 2013 SL with the Around View package. I love the car, obviously, and look forward to the next model. I got the 2013 for the leather interior and Around View (we are older and it helps a lot). We drove the i3 and liked it. Even my wife was comfortable with the 'one pedal' feature. It was definitely a blast to drive. Our reasons for not getting one are: 1) I thought that the back seat was more confining than our Leaf. 2) We only leased our Leafs due to luck and knowing now that they depreciate due to the changing technology. 3) Price! Our list was about $36k loaded. 4) Terms: We leased from our Auto Nation store and we got the full $7500 US credit off the price plus dealer discount of about $2500 for a net of about $26k. I was told that BMW is only giving $4500 credit on their leases and pocketing the extra $3k - bad form.
The 2013/14 Leaf is plenty fast for us. Also, the Around View gives us birds-eye viewing in front and back at very slow speeds. We drive it in B/Eco drive which gives us extra charging, but not as much as the i3. I am awaiting the Tesla econocar and the Infinity in 2016/17. I hope they come out about the same time so it will be clear which one to buy. Bottom line: Driving an EV, whether a Leaf, i3, or Tesla, is a blast. We have an ICE backup just in case but rarely use it. For us, the 85 mile range is just fine and we charge on a 120. If you don't try an EV, you don't know what you are missing. One other thing, maintenance. Not much to go wrong and don't have to pump gas.

John Goreham    May 18, 2014 - 2:37PM

Gary - loved this post. Thanks. Indeed the BMW i3 fan club I follow is now full of angry posts commenting on the cost. The "electronauts" which were BMW Active e lease holders, are very upset because they feel BMW is taking advantage of the early adopters. I have my eye on a leased base Leaf for my kids when they start driving. - I am not as optimistic as you about the Tesla. The next Tesla is now delayed until late 2015. We have seen the Model X design in detail now for 2 years and the prototype has been around for a full year. That car is almost exactly a Model S in every important way. It is a complete mystery to me how Tesla could come out with a radically different, significantly smaller, dramatically less expensive, car in 2 or 3 calendar years, gigafactory or no gigafactory. I hope it happens, but now even the name of the "econocar" car is now delayed.

John Goreham    June 2, 2014 - 1:03PM

One Update - One of the first i3's bought by a private owner in the US was Tom M of New Jersey. He went about 2 weeks before being left stranded by a "blowout" to use his phrase.
No spare + no run-flats = town truck + a long day.